The Foreigners’ Tribunals of Assam were first constituted around 1965,when the first alarm was raised about massive infiltration of foreigners from East Pakistan(now Bangladesh) and the Border Police were ordered to detect and deport them.The fact that the British had promoted an influx of migrants amounting to ten lakhs or more every decade and the notion that Assam had plenty of land and to spare encouraged wretchedly poor Muslim peasants from eastern districts of Bengal to come over in swarms.Nobody among rulers and even the Congress before independence paid any heed to the fact that the Assamese and tribals who accounted for nearly half the population of the province and who were not accustomed to the intensive commercial cultivation practised by such migrants were deeply worried about the future of their progeny.For they wanted security of their possession of land.But the leaders of the Muslim League earned the gratitude and fierce loyalty of the great majority of those Muslim peasants by standing up for them.It also unravelled as an existential crisis for the Assamese and other native peoples of the entire Northeast.It reached a boiling point when with tacit British support the Muslim League leaders raised a demand to include Assam in Pakistan.This has remained like a dark cloud in the collective memory of Assam, though there is no reason to think the poor peasants understood the social and political implications of such divisive and perilous politics.Neither is there any justification for pillorying their descendants today for that folly.But the undeniable fact is that this memory is there and is being dangerously stoked by saffron forces with great skill.All the more reason not to over-reach with demands for instant fulfilment of abstract rights.
Following partition which had hit common people of undivided India like a bombshell, there was a slow but successful negotiation by Congress leaders with the help of nationalist Muslim leaders and the small enlightened section of immigrant Muslim leaders for reconciliation.It saved Assam from descending into the horrors of Punjab partition riots.The reconciliation was effected through acceptance of Assamese as language of education and administration. The process of integration gained ground in the seventies in spite of the obstacles put by poverty,mass illiteracy and soaring population of such migrants because of early marriage and serial polygamy.Spread of education helped a lot in this process until the eruption of the Assam Movement which was massively backed and infiltrated by saffron forces who quickly widened their support-base through it and gave it a decisive communal turn.Not much has been done to investigate this covert but extremely successful campaign.Nelli massacre was a fruit of this poison tree.But events have followed a course that defies simplification.Prafulla Kumar Mahanta who is usually painted as the culprit behind such massacres enjoys today some measure of trust among immigrant Muslims because of his staunch secular stance.
So the propaganda about the inherently chauvinist tendency of caste-Hindu Assamese ‘narrow nationalism’ is a vicious simplification of intractable political facts. It is ridiculous to blame the Assamese alone for their anxiety not to be swamped by a sudden increase in numbers of outsiders in their own homeland.Will other nationalities in India meekly allow such damage to their material and cultural heritage?In fact the tribal organizations by no means in cahoots with caste-Hindus are even more radical and extreme in their demands on this score.Let the critics cite a single tribal leader or organization who opposes the idea of detecting and deporting foreigners, or ponder soberly this aspect of the matter.
Coming back to the FTs, in the sixties and long afterwards there were about a score of them manned by trained judicial staff like retired district or sessions judges.They had been formed for the sake of dispensing justice in this complicated business and for decades only about a score or more of those reported by the Border Police were declared foreigners in a year and were deported without much fuss.
With the ascent of saffron forces to power things changed drastically.They were obsessed from the beginning with the alleged Muslim menace to the country and spared no pains to demonize and harass Muslims.The situation in Assam was a goldmine to them.With a view to diverting the NRC from its mission and making life hell for the 4 million presumably to be disenfranchised they raised the number of FTs to 100( their number now is 300), and as trained judicial staff were not available they relaxed the norms and filled them with lawyers with 7 or 8 years of experience at the bar.Given the fact that FTs were just one-man tribunals,immaturity , lack of due consultation,as well as intense pressure from above to ‘show results’ led to great harassment of some minorities.The figure of 57 suicides flaunted by critics of NRC was the result of such summary justice.The police are not known in this country for unflinching integrity and with honourable exceptions generally bend to the will of the rulers.Under pressure to perform they have reportedly pounced on people at random and have picked on quite a few who had got themselves on NRC rolls through stringent procedures.Results are predictable.I had myself raised this question during the last three years in public in Assam often and prominently,and in the metropolitan media if and when the latter gave me a chance.Many here share my views.
Now there is also the charge of wholesale exclusion of Bengali Hindus.The number of those already on NRC must be in millions ,thus puncturing the idea of a rampant bias against them at work.The fact remains that the majority of those left out are Bengali Hindus.(The Nepalis numbering about one lakh are a different case altogether and perhaps come under Indo-Nepal treaty allowing their entry and residence in India).
Now how do we ascertain these Hindus are not infiltrators? The uncomfortable fact is that there had been a conspicuous decline in proportion of Hindus in Bangladesh from 1974 to 1991 from 13% to 8%, officially reported by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.There had been a fresh tumble in recent times probably inspired by declared open-door policy of saffron government to Hindus.Correspondingly there had been an incredible rise in numbers of Bengalis in certain constituencies of Assam.How else to explain these trends except by accepting the reality of cross-border migration?
Let not the Assamese alone be to blame for their alleged chauvinism.Are all the Bengalis above board in this regard including vocal critics of the Assamese?They too have skeletons in their cupboards, especially in the matter of communalism.Simply by claiming the moral high ground one cannot clean up one’s record.In fact many if not most Indians including the Assamese are guilty of similar shameful views, which are getting more entrenched with social stagnation setting in. The answer does not lie in flinging abuse.
Why do the Assamese( and the tribals) make this ‘song and dance’ about their impending doom? Not because of mere xenophobia.The glaring fact is that having been for decades left out of the loop of development which seems to benfit mostly only people from outside, they are worried about pressure on limited resources, scanty and strained avenues of employment and aggravating competition for them.The plague of annual floods and erosion ruining crops and engulfing thousands of hectares of arable land every year add to their misery.Loss of political influence stares them in the face.True,they have at times entered chauvinist blind alleys to their own peril.Their own rulers have not really been of much help and the Centre skimps much-needed finance for real development while conjuring fantasies about ‘foreign foes’.Even if some development had taken place it would perhaps not have filled the bowl in every household in view of the exploding population.A special effort is needed to pull our people out of this quagmire.Nobody has the time for it.
The second category of people victimised by Detention Centers are those whom the the Election Commission of India has marked as ‘doubtful voters’. The NRC Authority is under orders to deny them a place on final NRC even if they come through its stringent tests.This again appears a most unreasonable step imposed on it.
Democratic upholders of civil rights should take a look at it.
The AASU and like-minded organizations have raised a furore about use of forged documents that have eluded authorities.Is there some substance in it? Yes,some.Most have been detected and rejected.But not because there is a large-scale communal racket.Illiterate poor people who get lost on corridors of government offices usually seek help of middle-men who procure those for a consideration. Greedy middle-men forge documents to make a quick buck, and they usually belong to their own community.I have heard of some immigrant Muslim lawyers who have extorted thousands of rupees from day-labourers as well as many others who have helped selflessly.
So the NRC is by and large a valid if flawed document.Its faults could be examined and corrected but not by ditching it and starting from the scratch again.The damage done by FTs and ECI should be promptly and authoritatively addressed.The saffron government as well as some well-meaning but misguided people are trying to just junk it on some ground or other.This is a dangerous move and I have no doubt thar if successful it will in a few years lead to a fresh eruption of massacres and mayhem for years in Assam and the army and the CRP will be unable to control chaos.
Lastly ,on the critics’ canard that I have somehow reduced immigrants to “subjects of largesse” of the Assamese.Where and when?All I have written and meant is that in the irreducibly mixed population of present-day Assam immigrants should ensure goodwill and friendly relations with natives and not provoke anxiety and suspicion.Most immigrants I know, and they speak for majority of them, accept it as a sine qua non of normal co-existence.
Hiren Gohain is a literary critic, and social scientist.